When Vaughn Willoughby graduated from Graham High School, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. But he knew he wanted to work outdoors. Today, he’s the owner of a successful retail greenhouse and landscaping business in Graham called Living Landscapes.
Vaughn finished at NC State University in 1977 and worked in Raleigh for a little while before returning to Alamance County. “I was more of a homebody than I was a Raleigh body,” he said. He had spent his summers growing up on dairy farms owned by his great uncles in the southern part of Alamance County. For a while, he thought he would be a dairy farmer instead of a landscape contractor.
After graduation from State, he lived on one of the farms and milked cows in the morning before going to work.
Vaughn went to work for Chester Honeycutt at The Garden Shop on Edgewood Avenue in Burlington. After working there for a few years and on his own for a few, he began subcontracting with The Garden Shop to do landscaping work. It eventually turned into its own business. But things started out slow. “The first month was July 1982 and I made $157 and my wife said ‘I don’t think this is such a good idea,” Vaughn remembers.
That subcontracting business turned into Living Landscapes and it moved to its current location along Main Street on the south side of Graham in 1996. A retail nursery on site sells trees, shrubs, flowers, annuals, hanging baskets and all the stuff that goes with it like mulch, pine needles and top soil.
The nursery business was doing well until the recession began in 2008. Thankfully, the landscaping part of the business has kept things going. In fact, 2013 was the company’s best year since 2008. Living Landscapes does landscape design, installation and maintenance. Many customers have contracts for maintenance with Vaughn’s company. Some get their lawn mowed, some get lawn care but no mowing. Some get total coverage. What Vaughn calls a “two-week list” involves maintenance of shrubs and flowerbeds but no lawn care.
Vaughn says the company has expanded over the years but did not overreach. He “wanted to provide a quality landscape company that did professional work.” That meant treating people right and not chasing any one thing. Vaughn says Living Landscapes’ landscaping business is a little more diversified than some other companies. That has served the company well. He knows of some businesses that went under because too much of their bottom line was tied up in new home construction, which dried up during the recession.
Living Landscapes does a lot of residential work, including remodeling the landscaping for customers who have just bought a house. Some landscaping companies shy away from residential work and stick with commercial projects. In part, Vaughn says, that’s because they don’t want to deal with residential customers.Working with residential customers can require some “hand holding,” but it’s his company’s niche. Vaughn says his landscaping installation business is 85 percent residential and the landscaping maintenance work is half residential and half commercial. The company has also done work for the city of Burlington and for the New Leaf Society, a local nonprofit dedicated to making Alamance County more beautiful.
Now 56, Vaughn and wife, Amy, have two children. The work has changed quite a bit since Vaughn started in the late 1970s with shovels and rakes and landscaping work that only meant trees, shrubs and grass. Today, he and his employees use specialized machinery and most projects require some kind of construction element, be it a patio, a walkway, a retaining wall or a pergola.
One particularly valuable piece of equipment is the Dingo, manufactured by Toro. It’s the size of a lawnmower and can fit through a four-foot fence gate but has attachments that allow it to be used as a front-end loader, an auger, a tiller and more.
Other advancements that have made the landscaping business easier during Vaughn’s career include the zero turn mower and selective herbicides that will kill what you want but not what you don’t want to kill. In many ways, though, things haven’t changed. Customers still want a company that can make their lawn the envy of the neighborhood. “A lot of people can cut grass,” Vaughn says. “But not everybody can grow grass.”